Former Obama Administration Official Warns Against Afghanistan Pullout

Mike Morrell, former acting director of the CIA under President Obama, warned against the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2016, as Obama has promised.

“One of the places in the world where we are at risk of seeing another 9/11-style capability is unfortunately in Afghanistan. When U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, if that were to happen, it’s probably going to happen, then the best case outcome is that the Taliban is going to have safe haven in the south and the east,” Morrell said during a debate titled "The Global War on Terrorism: Is it Time to Double Down?" on Thursday evening at the Navy Memorial.

“When that happens, the remaining al-Qaeda cadre in Pakistan is going to come back across that border and find safe haven with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and if the United States is unwilling and unable to do anything about it they’re going to resurge and they’re going to regroup and they’re going to come at us again,” Morrell also said at the event, sponsored by the McCain Institute of Arizona State University.

Fran Townsend, former assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism, said Obama is committed to a timeline of withdraw in Afghanistan that could lead to a situation similar to ISIS expanding in Iraq.

“There are very specific timelines. Those people are coming out [of Afghanistan] regardless of the nightmare scenario Mike posits,” said Townsend. “If that’s happening, those people are still coming out. Are we still OK with that? I don’t think so. We shouldn’t be because we will face that threat.”

Daniel Benjamin, former State Department ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism under Obama, said the U.S. had a “very good capacity building process” in Iraq but the political process was “terrible.”

Benjamin said the U.S. allowed the government to run on a “sectarian principle that gutted the army and intelligence service.”

Morrell argued that the Iraqi army still needed assistance when U.S. forces left the country.

“The Iraqi military was not ready to stand on its own when we left at the end of 2011. It still needed our help,” said Morrell.

“Just as the Afghan army still needs our help now and you will see the same failure there if you withdraw on a time basis as opposed to a conditions basis,” Townsend said in response.

Townsend pointed out that 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008.

“The Islamic State is not merely a terrorist group. It is any regular army using terrorist targets,” said Townsend.

“Ignoring them is not a strategy. A great military leader once said hope is not a strategy. Being quiet and hoping they away is not going to work. They beheaded two Americans. Mike is right in my view that those are direct terrorist attacks against the United States,” she added.

Townsend suggested the U.S. work with local partners like foreign intelligence services to stop ISIS.

“But then you have to do more than talk about that. The Free Syrian Army, we have not adequately trained, manned or equipped them. We’ve done a lot of talking about it. We’ve done a lot of talking about spending money on it but I will tell you from everybody in the region and from representatives of the Free Syrian Army, we haven’t done it,” she said.

Morrell said ISIS has made clear they will target the U.S. once they settle into a safe haven.

“One of the things you learn in foreign policy over time is your adversary always tells you what they are going to do,” said Morrell.